The big studios are pulling back their blockbusters. Movie theatres are shutting down by order of the relevant authorities, and some films are going straight to on-demand platforms. Tom Hanks was quarantined. (He’s okay now.)
The movie business is experiencing severe disruption, but one bright spot remains. Drive-in theatres, where moviegoers can self-isolate in the comfort of their own vehicles, might have a booming season ahead of them. Who knew it would take a virus to breathe new life into a dying medium?
It is March, though. Most drive-ins in Canada are closed, independent of any COVID-19 concerns. But some outdoor popcorn palaces already have all the customers they can handle. Which, as it turns out, is a problem.
When contacted by The Globe and Mail, one West Coast drive-in that has reduced its capacity to support social distancing was reluctant to discuss its success, citing concerns that publicity would encourage too many people to show up.
Watching movies under the stars seems like a relic from the Happy Days era. And while it’s true the outdoor film theatres are disappearing from the summer pop-cultural landscape in large numbers, the ones that remain often thrive. “Business was great last summer,” al fresco operator Paul Peterson tells The Globe. “Attendance was strong.”
Mr. Peterson runs the Mustang Drive-in, a summer mainstay in Ontario’s bucolic Prince Edward County. He plans to open later in the spring, depending on what public-health guidelines and recommendations are in place at the time. For one thing, carloads will not be sharing a speaker-pole this season. He also acknowledges that public places such as washrooms and the canteen will be “tricky” to keep open.
On the website of British Columbia’s Twilight Drive-In, a “COVID-19 update" details the protocol in place. Parking is limited to one vehicle for each 20-foot stall that would normally service two cars with a shared speaker poll. Washrooms and concessions are open, with social-distancing guidelines in place. Customers are encouraged to come mid-week, when attendance is lower: “Mondays and Wednesday are the quietest nights.”
In interviews with The Los Angeles Times, owners of drive-ins in California, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri said they remain open, with several reporting upticks in ticket sales. Operators said they would adhere to limitations on public gatherings and would shut down their projectors if ordered to do so.
Beyond health concerns, drive-in operators have another worry: which films, if any, will even be available to them. The movies currently screening at the Twilight are Sonic the Hedgehog and the Vin Diesel vehicle Bloodshot.
“We may be open this summer, but what content will we have to play?” says Bob Boyle, owner of the Brackley Drive-In Theatre in Brackley Beach, outside Charlottetown.
Adds the Mustang’s Mr. Peterson, “We’re only as good as the movies we screen.”
Pickings this season might be as slim as a drive-in theatre food menu. Disney’s action drama Mulan, scheduled to be released March 27, has been delayed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic. Same goes for its superhero horror film The New Mutants.
Other films are being sent straight to digital on-demand services, a move that would keep some drive-in devotees watching from the comfort of their own couches instead of firing up their SUVs.
Drive-ins, then, have their advantages and their obstacles. For Mr. Peterson, though, even if he has the films and an audience allowed to come see them, something will be missing. “It’s magical, seeing a film under the stars, in a lawn chair outdoors, with kids running around and going to the playground.”
The highlight to the Mustang season is a pyjama party, with children and even some adults dressed in PJs for an event that customarily includes a group photo as a memento.
“If people are forced to stay in their vehicle," Mr. Peterson says with a sigh, "I can’t seeing it being the same.”
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